Hawkins, Indiana, 1985. School's out for the summer and the kids are enjoying themselves...apart from Will, who is annoyed at his friends constantly dropping him to hang out with their girlfriends. There's a new shopping mall in town and things seem to be on the up...until Dustin and Steve uncover evidence that the Russians are in town.
Stranger Things is the jewel in Netflix's crown, the show that made the streaming service must-watch television in 2016 and then exceeded that with its second season a year later. The streamer has had mixed success in replicating its appeal, with the ending of old mainstays Orange is the New Black and House of Cards making it even more dependent on the old favourite to deliver in its third season.
Fortunately, the third season delivers despite facing a number of obstacles. These include the young child actors growing up, something the show chooses to lean into and make the focus of a series of storylines, and the show of course simply not being as fresh as it once was. The 1980s nostalgia and the borrowing of tropes from Spielberg, Carpenter, Dante and Hughes movies was interesting in Season 1 and Season 2 kept things fresh by mixing things in with the increased spectacle of a James Cameron movie, but Season 3 faces the problem that the show is running out of 1980s tropes to exploit. Fortunately, the Duffer Brothers are canny enough to find new angles to tell their story (even if this means drawing inspiration from other decades), this time leaning on films like Red Dawn, The Terminator, The Thing, Mallrats and Dawn of the Dead, and exploiting themes of paranoia and the fragmenting of friend groups as they age.
Structurally, Season 3 splits the main cast up early on and has them taking on their own individual missions. Dustin, Steve, newcomer Robin and Erica (the ultra-sassy sister of Lucas, promoted from a scene-stealing role in Season 2) discover evidence of Russian agents working at the mall and investigating. Hopper and Joyce become embroiled in a battle of wills with a mercenary with a Terminator-like focus. Much of the rest of the gang discover evidence that the Upside Down is still impacting on events in this world, despite Eleven closing the gate in Season 2, and find themselves in a battle against a new monster, this time one that is exceptionally gross. Once again, for a show with so many young protagonists, it's a bit odd that you don't really want to be watching this with sub-teenage kids due to the amount of gore and swearing on display.
Splitting the cast up, Fellowship-style, allows their individual stories to rattle along nicely and the show is confident enough to hold fire on realising the full stakes and scope of the threat until the end of the fourth episode, devoting the first three episodes to set-up work and seeing our heroes having fun instead. This mostly works quite well, although Stranger Things is starting to feel like fanservice central. So we have Dustin and Steve's slightly incongruous friendship, simply because fans loved their bromance in Season 2, and we have the morally ambiguous Billy walking around without his shirt on. A lot. The show dodges a bullet this time around because those stories end up being good enough to maintain the viewer's interest (Billy even becomes somewhat sympathetic by the end of the season, a major feat given how under-developed he was in Season 2) and them leading to some genuinely good moments, such as the friendship between Steve and co-worker Robin which goes in a somewhat unexpected direction. The show even finds ways of subverting audience expectations, like not over-relying on Eleven's powers to get the kids out of every jam they find themselves in.
For a show with dimension-hopping kids fighting horrendous biological horrors, criticising the show for being unrealistic may be churlish. But, that said, there are some moments that do stretch credulity way past the breaking point, like a hostile foreign power somehow building a massive base of operations in the middle of rural America and running huge, energy-draining experiments without anyone noticing. There are also some storylines that are definitely under-developed, like dozens of people going missing and no-one really seeming to care, the kids vanishing from their homes for days on end and their parents shrugging it off with, "it's summer, what can you do?" (bearing in mind it's only two years since Will's disappearance traumatised the town). Cary Elwes gets some nice material as the town's corrupt mayor, but his story abruptly halts halfway through the season and is paid only lip service in the finale, whilst a subplot (begun in Season 2) with Karen Wheeler being tempted into an affair with a younger man also ends up fizzling out with no real resolution. Of course, with at least one more season to come, some of these elements may be explored further.
The third season of Stranger Things (****½) remains highly compelling viewing, with spectacular visual effects and production values, outstanding performances by the excellent cast and the writers finding surprising ways to take what might have been otherwise a stale story. However, the show also suffers from some issues with repetition, credibility and some undercooked subplots. With the Duffer Brothers still split on whether to end the show with its fourth or fifth season, I'm thinking that wrapping it up sooner, whilst it's still fresh (and before the kids enter college) might be a better idea. The show is streaming worldwide on Netflix now.